New Studies Point to Success of English Immersion

Published May 1, 2000

As California schools move into the closing months of their second year under Proposition 227, a number of studies have demonstrated that children are thriving under English immersion.

One new report by the Santa Cruz Sentinel provides important evidence that school districts that made rapid and thorough implementation of Proposition 227 a priority were able to demonstrate impressive growth among English learners, especially when the transition was accompanied by other reforms.

The study, conducted by Sentinel reporter Jondi Gumz, examined school districts that adopted markedly different approaches in response to the new law. Gumz analyzed test scores and interviewed teachers, parents, and school officials.

English learners showed “dramatic improvement” in schools such as Inglewood’s Bennett-Kew Elementary School, which switched to English-only instruction and also introduced the Open Court reading program. The latter is characterized by a strong, early phonics base, with the teacher giving instruction in front of the class most of the time. One parent interviewed by Gumz moved her two children from a private school to Bennett-Kew, a public school six miles from Los Angeles International Airport where 4 out of 5 students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

“I’m not interested in my children learning the curriculum in Spanish,” she explained to Gumz, adding that she teaches the children Spanish at home.

English learners also showed significant improvements in the Live Oak school district, where bilingual classes were completely eliminated. But in schools that failed to demonstrate significant improvement, Gumz found low morale among teachers, particularly bilingual-certified teachers, and efforts by teacher unions to persuade school districts to oppose the initiative.

In school districts where implementation varied from school to school, those that added English classes showed more improvement than those where most students remained in bilingual classrooms. At Calabasas Elementary in Watsonville, where some teachers had never taught in English before, a first-grade teacher observed, “They are actually beginning to speak English with each other.”

The Sentinel‘s findings are broadly consistent with those from a study of English learners’ results on the Stanford-9 test. This study, conducted by the San Jose Mercury News, found that second-grade English learners in mainstream classrooms averaged at the 35th national percentile in reading, while their peers in bilingual classrooms averaged in the 20th percentile. In math, second-graders in mainstream classrooms scored at nearly the 43rd national percentile, while those in bilingual classrooms averaged just below the 31st percentile.

A third study, by Kevin Clark of the READ Institute, reports similar findings. Districts that combined a swift and complete transition to English immersion with a sound implementation strategy achieved the best results, according to Clark’s report, “From Primary Language Instruction to English Immersion: How Five California Districts Made the Switch.” Orange Unified School District, one of the report’s case studies, had begun to switch to English immersion nearly nine months before the passage of Proposition 227.

“Immersion turned out to be the most coherent program we have ever offered Limited English Proficient students,” concluded Assistant Superintendent Neil McKinnon. “Prior to that, [those students] were seen as the bilingual teachers’ responsibility and one that the majority of teachers don’t have to worry about.”

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute.